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HOME > Classical Novels > A Thousand Splendid Suns > Chapter 21.
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Chapter 21.
The driver pulled his taxi over to let pass another long convoyof Soviet jeeps and armored vehicles. Tariq leaned across thefront seat, over the driver, and yelled,"Pajalmia! Pajalmta!"A jeep honked and Tariq whistled back, beaming and wavingcheerfully. "Lovely guns!" he yelled "Fabulous jeeps! Fabulousarmy! Too bad you're losing to a bunch of peasants firingslingshots!"The convoy passed. The driver merged back onto the road"How much farther?" Laila asked"An hour at the most," the driver said. "Barring any moreconvoys or checkpoints."They were taking a day trip, Laila, Babi, and Tariq. Hasinahad wanted to come too, had begged her father, but hewouldn't allow it. The trip was Babi's idea. Though he couldhardly afford it on his salary, he'd hired a driver for the day.
He wouldn't disclose anything to Laila about their destinationexcept to say that, with it, he was contributing to hereducation.
They had been on the road since five in the morning.
Through Laila's window, the landscape shifted from snowcappedpeaks to deserts to canyons and sun-scorched outcroppings ofrocks. Along the way, they passed mud houses with thatchedroofs and fields dotted with bundles of wheat. Pitched out inthe dusty fields, here and there, Laila recognized the black tentsof Koochi nomads. And, frequently, the carcasses of burned-outSoviet tanks and wrecked helicopters. This, she thought, wasAhmad and Noor's Afghanistan. This, here in the provinces,was where the war was being fought, after all. Not in Kabul.
Kabul was largely at peace. Back in Kabul, if not for theoccasional bursts of gunfire, if not for the Soviet soldierssmoking on the sidewalks and the Soviet jeeps always bumpingthrough the streets, war might as well have been a rumor.
It was late morning, after they'd passed two more checkpoints,when they entered a valley. Babi had Laila lean across the seatand pointed to a series of ancient-looking walls of sun-dried redin the distance.
"That's called Shahr-e-Zohak. The Red City. It used to be afortress. It was built some nine hundred years ago to defendthe valley from invaders. Genghis Khan's grandson attacked itin the thirteenth century, but he was killed. It was GenghisKhan himself who then destroyed it.""And that, my young friends, is the story of our country, oneinvader after another," the driver said, flicking cigarette ash outthe window. "Macedonians. Sassanians. Arabs. Mongols. Nowthe Soviets. But we're like those walls up there. Battered, andnothing pretty to look at, but still standing. Isn't that thetruth,badar?'
"Indeed it is," said Babi.
* * *Half an hour later,the driver pulled over.
"Come on, you two," Babi said. "Come outside and have alook."They got out of the taxi. Babi pointed "There they are. Look."Tariq gasped. Laila did too. And she knew then that shecould live to be a hundred and she would never again see athing as magnificent.
The two Buddhas were enormous, soaring much higher thanshe had imagined from all the photos she'd seen of them.
Chiseled into a sun-bleached rock cliff, they peered down atthem, as they had nearly two thousand years before, Lailaimagined, at caravans crossing the valley on the Silk Road. Oneither side of them, along the overhanging niche, the cliff waspocked with myriad caves.
"I feel so small," Tariq said.
"You want to climb up?" Babi said.
"Up the statues?" Laila asked. "We can do that?"Babi smiled and held out his hand. "Come on."* * *Theclimb washard for Tariq, who had to hold on to both Lailaand Babi as they inched up a winding, narrow, dimly litstaircase. They saw shadowy caves along the way, and tunnelshoneycombing the cliff every which way.
"Careful where you step," Babi said His voice made a loudecho. "The ground is treacherous."In some parts, the staircase was open to the Buddha's cavity.
"Don't look down, children. Keep looking straight ahead."As they climbed, Babi told them that Bamiyan had once beena thriving Buddhist center until it had fallen under Islamic Arabrule in the ninth century. The sandstone cliffs were home toBuddhist monks who carved caves in them to use as livingquarters and as sanctuary for weary traveling pilgrims. Themonks, Babi said, painted beautiful frescoes along the walls androofs of their caves.
"At one point," he said, "there were five thousand monksliving as hermits in these caves."Tariq was badly out of breath when they reached the top.
Babi was panting too. But his eyes shone with excitement.
"We're standing atop its head," he said, wiping his brow witha handkerchief "There's a niche over here where we can lookout."They inched over to the craggy overhang and, standing sideby side, with Babi in the middle, gazed down on the valley.
"Look at this!" said Laila.
Babi smiled.
The Bamiyan Valley below was carpeted by lush farming fields.
Babi said they were green winter wheat and alfalfa, potatoestoo. The fields were bordered by poplars and crisscrossed bystreams and irrigation ditches, on the banks of which tinyfemale figures squatted and washed clothes. Babi pointed to ricepaddies and barley fields draping the slopes. It was autumn,and Laila could make out people in bright tunics on the roofsof mud brick dwellings laying out the harvest to dry. The mainroad going through the town was poplar-lined too. There weresmall shops and teahouses and street-side barbers on eitherside of it. Beyond the village, beyond the river and the streams,Laila saw foothills, bare and dusty brown, and, beyond those,as beyond everything else in Afghanistan, the snowcappedHindu Kush.
The sky above all of this was an immaculate, spotless blue.
"It's so quiet," Laila breathed. She could see tiny sheep andhorses but couldn't hear their bleating and whinnying.
"It's what I always remember about being up here," Babi said.
"The silence. The peace of it. I wanted you to experience it.
But I also wanted you to see your country's heritage, children,to learn of its rich past. You see, some things I can teach you.
Some you learn from books. But there are things that, well,you just have tosee andfeel.""Look," said Tariq.
They watched a hawk, gliding in circles above the village.
"Did you ever bring Mammy up here?" Laila asked"Oh, many times. Before the boys were born. After too. Yourmother, she used to be adventurous then, and…soalive. Shewas just about the liveliest, happiest person I'd ever met." Hesmiled at the memory. "She had this laugh. I swear it's why Imarried her, Laila, for that laugh. It bulldozed you. You stoodno chance against it."A wave of affection overcame Laila. From then on, she wouldalways remember Babi this way............
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